The Spike or Victoria College Review 1947
Concerning Mr Porter
Concerning Mr Porter
Looking Back on one wet afternoon upon the forty-seven years that had been his life, Charles Porter realised with surprise how little meaning any part of it had to which he could not attach the small and unsure image of his wife. From this small image in his mind emanated a glow which suffused all that part of his life which it had touched, and cast into a grey unimportance the twenty-eight years which had preceded his marriage.
Debating the point Mr Porter had to admit that from the moment he met Mildred he had felt different. For one thing she was the first ever to call him Charles.
'Call me Charlie' he had said jocularly when they were introduced in the house of a mutual friend. He hadn't been feeling jocular and, in fact, knew better than anyone how ill the air became him. So immediately he had blushed and felt miserable. 'Oh no,' she replied, looking very serious as if it were a matter of some importance.'Everyone is called Charlie. I think Charles is so much more—well, dignified.'
Mr Porter wondered if he had fallen in love with her at that moment or at the musical evening at the same home a few weeks later. Mildred was playing the piano when he arrived and as he stood in the doorway listening the first great longing of his life had come to him, that of becoming a small adoring part of Mildred's life. Then, in the applause that followed, he became miserably conscious of his unheroic appearance and of the stubborn inkstain that constant scrubbing could not obliterate from one tenuous finger.
The memory of that inkstain brought Mr Porter back to reality. He looked at his third finger and the inkstain was still there. Well, not the same one, he thought. But it comes to the same thing. And a lot you've brought page 19 her, my lad. But then I didn't know how things were going to turn out. He stared absentmindedly at a half empty bottle of red ink. Funny, I seem almost scared now that it has happened. I suppose I sort of can't believe it after all these years. But it will be wonderful being able to tell her. Mr Porter shook himself irritably and began to add up another column of figures.
The remainder of the afternoon seemed interminable. At the end of it the clerk next to him took his glasses off, and, as he polished them, peered short-sightedly at Mr Porter.
'You know, if I didn't know you so well he said I wouldn't think anything was wrong. Lots of people—Jack, for instance—think things don't worry you just because you don't feel it. But you have been fidgetting all afternoon. What is it?'
'Nothing,' said Mr Porter hurriedly. He glanced at his watch, said 'Oh, time to be off' and slipped off his stool.
'You knew that already' said his friend who had a practical mind. Mr Porter didn't answer because he was thinking how nice it would be to tell someone what was on his mind. Besides, the reference to Jack irritated him. So instead of getting his hat and coat he stood where he was and looked rather angrily at Mr Colquhoun.
'I suppose Jack and them think I like the work here too' he said. 'I don't know. Youngsters seem funny these days. Why should I like being punctual and conscious any more than them? It's just that I know what pays and they don't. But I'm human, all the same. I like doing the things I want to do and going where I want to go. But life isn't that easy, George.' His voice rose in self-pity and Mr Colquhoun looked at him in astonishment. Mr Porter began to walk up and down and when he spoke again it was in a voice tinged with some satisfaction.
'But now I have got what I want' he said. 'I've worked hard and now I've got my reward.'
These extraordinary remarks could mean only one thing to Mr Colquhoun. He took his glasses off again.
'You're not thinking of leaving, Charlie? he said in alarm.' Most unwise, I assure you. We've been together a long time now. Not that I mind but .... I mean .... how-have you saved enough to retire on? Mr Porter looked at him in surprise.
'But I'm not leaving he said.' Whatever gave you that idea?
'Good heavens! What gave me that idea? You walk up and down saying you don't like working here and that you have now got what you want and so on. What else was I to think?' Mr Colquhoun masked in indignation the fright that Mr Porter had given him.
'I'm sorry George. You know I wouldn't run out on you. Not without warning, anyway.'
'I don't know' said George. 'I don't know at all, I'm sure.' He did a small addition on a piece of blotting paper and Mr Porter could see that he was upset. Poor old chap, he thought, I suppose I was a bit sudden for him. He coughed with embarrassment.
'I wasn't going to tell you George' he said. 'It's rather silly. That is, you'll think it silly. My wife plays the piano very well. I've been saving up to buy her one There was a short silence.
'You've been saving up to buy your wife a piano' George repeated slowly. 'But . . . but that's ridiculous. You get the same pay as me and have to pay rent as well. You can't afford it.'
'But that's just it' said Mr Porter.' I can now. I've been saving solidly for the last ten years.' He stopped, seeing that his friend's face was registering only concern.
'I know it seems ridiculous' he went on after a moment's silence, 'But you hardly know the facts of the case.'
'Haven't you ever had a piano? asked Mr Colquhoun.
'Yes, we had to sell it.'
'Well, can't you pick up a cheap second hand one? I did that for my wife.' Mr Porter winced.
'No' he said. 'I couldn't—wouldn't. They're hard to get anyway.'
'I might be able to get around Alice and get her to part with ours. She never plays it. You could pay what you thought it was worth.'
'No' said Mr Porter almost curtly. 'You're very kind, George. Thanks. But I don't page 20 want a second hand piano. If I had've I could have bought one a couple of years ago. He suddenly felt the futility of getting George to understand and wished that he had never spoken.
'I'd better be getting along' he said. 'See you tomorrow.' Mr Colquhoun watched him leave the room, then shook his head and sighed.
Outside the office building, although it was cold and misty, Mr Porter breathed a deep sigh of relief. Removed from the discomfort of Mr Colquhoun's gaze and the restraint of the office surroundings he was able to release the excitement that had been pent up within him ever since he had been paid that morning.
The pleasant tenor of his thoughts was interrupted for the second time that afternoon in the tram that was taking Mr Porter home. Swaying suddenly at a bend it upset his balance, making him lurch heavily against the back of a seat and involuntarily clutch its hand grip. In doing this, however, he found himself sharing it with a small sticky hand. A quick tremor of disgust ran through Mr Porter and he hurriedly withdrew, looking to see whose hand he had touched. It belonged to a small freckled boy who was chewing gum and hadn't even noticed the intrusion.
Mr Porter looked at him as one would at an insect of unsocial habits. He had never liked children. They're always so dirty, he told himself, and he looked away out of the window. But the incident kept on reminding him of the one thing he wanted to forget, the one memory he thought he had successfully combatted. It was of the tenth year of their marriage—the year in which Mildred had had a son. He still had a dismal picture of him self standing over the bassinet that held his son and hating him with an intensity which he could scarcely conceal. Any paternal pride that he might have had was soon swamped in the anxiety of a difficult birth and was further lessened by a latent jealousy which suddenly sprang up as he looked at his son for the first time.
'It's all my fault' he had kept on repeating to himself, and he hoped that it would die. So that when it did die a few hours later and Mr Porter turned in relief to his wife, found only a torn, inconsolable woman, he was struck with guilt and growing remorse. In the subsequent long illness and convalescence it was perhaps this reaction which kept Mrs Porter alive, because one dim view of her husbands distorted, fearful face convinced her that he could not do without her.
There was a second picture in Mr Porter's mind. It was of his wife lying in bed, her hands moving restlessly above the bedclothes and saying 'You must sell the piano, Charles' Mr. Porter could not think of anything to say in answer for they both knew that her piano was the only thing they possessed which could pay the hospital expenses.
'Ring Mrs Smythe. She still wants it.' Mr Porter looked at the floor and was silent.
'My baby and now my piano' she said, but without emotion, as if she was too tired to feel what the words meant. She put out her hand and pressed Mr Porter's gently.
'Dear Charles' she said, and then went on gazing listlessly at the ceiling as if he wasn't there. Mr Porter had tiptoed away, hot tears stinging behind his eyes.
The tram slowed down for Mr Porter's stop. This is ridiculous, he said to himself. The past is the past. Over and done with, that's what I say. He got off and watched the tram slipping into the deepening fog for a moment before pulling his coat collar closer about his ears and setting off briskly down a side street. Here you are, he went on, moping about the past and this is the present, and tomorrow is Millie's birthday, and look at the surprise you've got for her, my lad.
The house he rented was at the end of the small, dimly lit street, and similar in construction to most of the houses along the left side. Like most of them, also, there were no lights on in the front of the house because the kitchen was the warmest and most comfortable room in the house.
Mr Porter s hand was trembling and in the dark had a little trouble finding the keyhole. Inside there was a light half way down the passage leading to the kitchen which lit up a heavy hat stand, the only piece of furniture in the minute hall. There was a sound of frying coming from the kitchen. Steak and onions, thought Mr Porter mechanically aspage break page break page 21
he took off his hat and coat.
The kitchen door opened and Mrs Porter looked through, her hand on the door knob. 'Oh Charles, it's you' she said. 'You came in so quietly.'
'Did I?' Mr Porter looked at her and could not say any more. She waited for him to kiss her. She looked unusually flushed and Mr Porter pinched her cheek gently.
'We're looking very bonny tonight' he said. She didn't answer but drew him into the warmth of the kitchen and pushed him into his favourite chair.
'You must be cold' she said, then she turned her back on him and bent over the stove. Mr Porter looked at her for a moment, aching with love. Now that the time for telling her had come he felt strangely tongue tied. He cleared his throat.
'Will tea be long?' he asked and the sound of his own voice gave him courage. 'Mildred' he went on in a sudden burst, 'I—er . . I've got a surprise for you.' She swung round quickly.
'How did you know?' she said. Did you get a letter too?' How excited she looks thought Mr Porter, and a thousand anguished thoughts chased themselves through his head. She knows. She can't. That's why she looked so flushed. Who else would give her a surprise? He felt a sudden weight of dread.
'Did I know what?' he stammered. She stepped back and stood looking at him as if she had been trapped into saying something that she had not meant. Oh dear, Mr Porter thought miserably. I wish she wouldn't shut herself up so.
'About the money' she said slowly, as if unwilling to show an emotion which he could not share, but she could not hide the excitement in her small, thin face. 'You remember cousin Dorothy' she said. 'Poor thing, she's been dying for simply ages. She's very fond of me, so she says, and when she heard about my piano, selling it I mean, she said she'd like to give me another someday.' Mrs Porter looked down at her hands. 'I never told you. I didn't want any charity of course. And just think Charles, she's remembered my birthday ever since one time I stayed with her as a little girl. This came today,' and she pulled it out of her apron pocket. 'I thought you must have one too. I don't know why. You looked excited too, that's why I—. Anyway she's sending me some money for a piano. A new one. I forget how much. Here—read it,' and Mrs Porter thrust the crumpled letter into Charles' hand.
'I went in this afternoon and have just about decided on one' she said.
For a moment Mr Porter sat looking at her as if he had not understood. He opened his mouth and then shut it again. His wife looked at him in dismay.
'Oh Charles, read it' she said. 'You surely don't think I'm being extravagant, do you? I want a piano so much. I haven't many pleasures, and ten years. It's a long time.' Mr Porter patted her hand and blinked. He could not look her in the face. 'Of course. I know. Ten years is a long time,' he said, and then after a moment's silence, 'A very long time.'
'Oh, the onions!' said Mrs Porter in sudden panic, and as she stood at the stove stirring them she found herself able to tell Charles without feeling too guilty how she had longed for a piano all these years. Dear Charles, she felt sure that he would understand.
Mr Porter listened to what she was saying by a great effort of will, and by an even greater effort he was able to smile at her when at last she turned and waited for him to speak.
'I know how you feel' he said, and his mind kept on saying, I can buy something else with it. I can buy something else with it. All he knew was that he could never tell her, for suddenly all his sacrifice didn't seem to mean anything anymore.
'Darling Charles' said Mrs Porter and she went and kissed him.
'Tell me,' she said presently, 'what is your surprise? I don't know why I thought you'd know about mine. I suppose because I've been thinking about it all day
'Surprise?' said Mr Porter and his eyes dropped to the floor. He thought desperately but no inspiration came.
'I—er,' he began, and then he had it. 'No' he said suddenly as if he had quite made up his mind, 'Not till tomorrow. Your birthday isn't till tomorrow. I won't have any cheating.'page 22
What a child he is, thought Mrs Porter, looking at him affectionately.
'Oh God prayed Mr Porter, for his mind was blank, 'think me up something in the night.'